Farewell Japan, hello Korea!
Today was a transit day so not much to report. We caught the train to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport (something of a misnomer as there is no “Old Chitose Airport”), checked in and proceeded to sit on our butts for many, many hours. Half an hour on the train; two hours at the (very small) airport; three hours on the (packed) plane; half an hour to get through immigration and customs in Seoul; half an hour of waiting around for our bags and trying to find the right bus to get us as close as possible to our hotel in Myeong-Dong; and, finally, 90 minutes on a bus to get from Incheon Airport to the heart of Seoul. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a long boring day in transit. It’s great to be here in Seoul though – this city is intense!
Like Tokyo, Seoul is huge city, home to 25 million people and one of the world’s fastest growing cities economically and in terms of size. Cities like this just make me feel like such a country bumpkin, staring at all the pretty lights and being amazed by all the people and shops. We are staying right in the centre of Myeong-Dong, which is Seoul’s mid-range to high-end shopping Meccah; it’s also got a funky edge to it, with street markets held in the evenings on weekends. And tonight, being Sunday, is a weekend people! That meant that, as soon as we were checked in, showered and dressed, we went out into the fray and experienced the buzz of Myeong-Dong’s night marketsfor ourselves. It was awesome!
The lights, the sounds, the colours, the smells of sizzling, roasting, cooking food… Talk about a bit of sensory overload! We dined on an extraordinarily unhealthy mix of street foods, including giant super-spicey sausage on a stick; miscellaneous chicken bits grilled and served on a stick with lashings of chilli sauce; mega-sized pork, cabbage and garlic dumplings with added chilli for good measure; fried potato on a stick, cut into a single continuous spiral and served with salt and, you guessed it, CHILLI! Then for dessert, 32cm of ice cream. I kid you not people, Koreans sell ice cream by the foot! All of that for 10,000Won (about $10AUD). After that cardiovascularly-challenging meal, we’re back in our room, cosy and comfortable in our fancy hotel (fancy compared to some of the basic places we stayed in in Japan that is- it’s not THAT fancy here, but it’s definitely a step up from show-box rooms and cupboard toilets). Welcome to Seoul!
Note: In case you missed it: Korean food is generally VERY spicy. Lots of chilli, garlic, onion, cabbage, pork…. man are we going to smell BAD after a week on that kinda diet!!
Special note: Final thoughts and parting sentiments on Japan
Before Korea completely overwhelms our sense, we just wanted to capture a few thoughts about our experiences in Japan. After almost 20 years of talking about visiting, it was great to actually see so much of Japan and to experience so many different sides of it. I fully appreciate than in a month we have barely scratched the surface of everything Japan has to offer, but what we have seen has certainly left an impression. Included below is a random list of some of the things that have made the greatest impression, things we will always remember as part of our 2013 Japanese adventure.
- Unfailing politeness. Everyone in Japan was so incredibly thoughtful and polite to us. I’m sure rude Japanese people exist, we just didn’t bump into any. Even the announcements at train stations, on trains and in the elevators were just so polite. We’ve gotten used to big smiles, little bows and multiple thank-you’s every time we bought something from a shop or a restaurant. It will take a conscious effort to get out of the habit of bowing back to shop-keepers.
- Sweet, sweet silence. Even in crowds, the Japanese have certainly mastered the art of stillness and silence. Riding on trains was such a peaceful experience most of the time as everyone sat calmly wrapped in their own cocoon of silence – no loud conversations on mobile phones, no rowdy groups of kids, no one pushing or shoving. On the roads,no honking horns or screeching tyres. It was great! Even Tokyo, for all its millions of inhabitants, was eerily quiet at times. It makes being in such crowded conditions far more bearable as everyone was so very mindful of the impact of their behaviour on everyone else. I doubt we’ll get to experience that again
- Enthusiastic greetings. I will miss the chipper, loud “irrashaimase” welcoming us into shops, restaurants and hotels. You could argue that the gesture is empty, that they have to say it; true as that may be however, no one forces them to be so damn happy about it! And not forgetting the equally enthusiastic “arigato gozaimashita” when the deed is done and we were leaving their establishment.
- Precision and perfection. When the train timetable says the train leaves at 11:02, it will leave at EXACTLY 11:02 – not 11:03 or 11:01. And when the hotel information booklet says check-in is 3:00pm, you can check in at 3:00pm – not 2:55pm or even 2:59pm. We learnt very early on to make sure our watches were set to exactly the right Japanese time, one minute slow or fast and we could easily miss a train!
- Vending machines. They are everywhere, for everything imaginable. Cold drinks, hot drinks, snack foods, and even hot noodles (yup, out of a vending machine). How empty our lives will be without all those vending machines on every corner…
- Crazy fashion. Harajuku, Tokyo. Need I say more? Their tolerance for cutesy outfits and toys, and their passion radical fashions, is unique and absolutely memorable. Generally, everywhere we went, the Japanese people we saw walking the streets were impeccably dressed. And if they were going for a particular look, they REALLY went there – all or nothing man, I like it!
- Packaging extravagance. Try buying a packet of gum – every piece of gum is individually wrapped. Each tiny little piece of gum! The Japanese seem to be nuts about packaging and plastic bags. Apparently it’s no big deal environmentally though because they have one of the world’s best recycling set-ups – they recycle 80% of their waste, only 20% goes to landfill. Pretty impressive! And they DO make an art form out of ornately gift-wrapping or packaging even the smallest item that’s even a little bit “fancy”.
- Miniature gardens and flowers. Japanese culture emphasises appreciation of the beauty found in small things, and with such small homes and limited space, the Japanese are masters of making the best use of the smallest of spaces. Combining these two traits results in one of my favourite things about Japan: tiny kerbside gardens set up in front of houses, shops and restaurants that consist of just a few potted plants and blooming flowers, artfully arranged to create a miniature thing of beauty.
- Hygiene freaks. I thought Australians were getting a little crazy with the hygiene thing, but Japan is a country filled with people obsessed with avoiding germs. From surgical masks on every third person, to scented towelettes to clean your hands with before every meal, and even hand sanitiser dispensers in every bathroom and restaurant. I would hazard to guess these things are not all necessary, but maybe when you live in such an over-populated country, it is?? I can’t begin to guess how filthy we must have seemed to the Japanese, eating with our washed, but not surgically disinfected hands!
- Bathroom antics. Toilets in Japan deserve a whole book dedicated to their wondrous mysteries. From the ultra-modern ones with heated toilet seats, built-in bidet facilities and sounds-of-nature sound-tracks that play while you pee, to the truly undignified experience of using a squat toilet (ahem…, Shane especially knows about this one); toilets in Japan are unlike any I’ve seen anywhere in the world. And it’s not just the toilets themselves, what’s with the loo paper? Unperforated, single ply toilet paper ONLY. What the hell Japan?? With all that amazing technology at your disposal, can you not make loo paper that doesn’t feel like waxed sand paper, with perforations for ease of use? No? Really… No? Just one last thing on toilets: public toilets in Japan are amazing. Clean, plentiful, free, and mostly all of the ultra-modern, Western variety, which is always a bonus!
- Stunning scenery. From the mountains and lakes of Hokkaido, to the alpine region around Nagano, Matsushima Bay, Miyajima Island, Koya-san, the Kiso Valley Trail…need I say more? Japan has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. We have made a commitment to return to some of our favourite places at least 3 more times in our lives: once to see it in spring with all the flowers in bloom, once in autumn to see the reds and oranges of the foliage as it turns, and finally, once in winter to see it all blanketed in snow.
- Great food. Once you know your okonomiyaki from your takoyaki, and your tonkatsu from your tori-karage, Japanese dining is great. Just watch out for the odd curve ball like raw horse meat or still-living squid!
For all of these things, and so much more, thank you Japan! And arigato gozaimashita to all the wonderful people we met during our travels – thank you for your generosity, your welcoming smiles, your patience with our faulting attempts at communication and our multiple faux pas; and most of all, thank you for helping make our month in Japan such a great experience!